Children, Play Nicely Please: Sciences vs. Humanities

Due to this little thing – (if you’re around the Fringe this summer do pop by, I play a small child and that is definitely worth seeing) – I’m writing this week’s post in a tardy and rushed fashion.  Which is annoying, because the topic I want to touch on is rather huge: the epic battle between the Sciences and the Humanities.  I feel a bit like a Jehovah’s Witness who’s just had the door opened by Richard Dawkins.  Nonetheless, I’ve been prompted to have a go by the most recent episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage, which was titled ‘Art vs. Science’.  Rivalry between academic fields is commonplace, but comparing fields as huge and wildly different as ‘The Arts’ and ‘The Sciences’ seems much like comparing apples and oranges.  But a programme titled ‘Apples vs. Oranges’ (subtitle: a literal food fight) would be a curiosity, rather than fitting in to a long-running, very recognizable, but completely unwinnable debate.

The debate itself should be familiar to any university student, past or present.  Tetchily arriving home at 6.30pm after 9am lectures and six hours of labs to find their historian housemate making a leisurely breakfast, the physicist claims that history is, if we’re honest, a pointless subject.  At 4.30am, when the historian has just started essay plan #5 and proplus #83, they console themselves with the thought that their subject engages with, rather than hides from, the vital social aspects of being human, and that their essay might actually include some independent creative thought just as soon as the caffeine kicks in.  Comparisons of fashion sense will probably cross their minds as well.  The criticism of science as the embodiment of social pariahdom is something I’d like to discuss in a later post (get excited folks), so here I’m going to focus on the criticism of humanities.  These boil down to three main arguments: (A) Sciences make the useful things that everyone uses nowadays. (B) Humanities ultimately have no real impact for the vast majority of the world.  And (C) Humanities are impossibly vague, whereas Sciences use rigorous methods to get right answers.  My stance – there’s something in all of these as descriptions, but using them as criticisms is a step too far.

As a traditionalist, I’ll start with (A).  Sciences certainly do make things, in a very immediate sense – scientific and engineering construction projects, whether a bridge or a computer or a new measuring device, set out knowing what they want to build and (lots of head-scratching later) how to build it.  And when it’s built they know that it couldn’t have been done without some requisite scientific knowledge. (You could draw comparisons with ‘making’ a book or sculpture, but it’s not the same – there’s not a required purpose, or required set of methods).  But, as any scientist will tell you, science doesn’t just make things.  Science is motivated by curiosity about the fundamental nature of the world around us, and the useful things are largely spin-offs from this curiosity.  And this is the crunch point – curiosity about the world around us is the underpinning of all intellectual and academic activity.  That includes the natural world and the human world.  The intellectual world encompasses figuring out the mathematical structures of physical processes, wondering why certain contexts produced different historical narratives, analysing how literature communicates impressions, and much much more.  (By the way, I can only apologise for the massive simplification of entire academic fields.  But it’s quite hard, give it a go).  They’re all driven by curiosity.  In arguments about the LHC and the like, scientists frequently argue that the useful products of science only follow from its most important mission, satisfying curiosity about the universe.  I agree.  But to then argue that this curiosity is only an admirable thing when applied to certain questions (i.e. ones about the universe, and not ones about nice words or pretty pictures) seems to give with one hand and take with the other.

There might still be a difference – one line of thought suggests that scientists’ curiosity happily produces good things like medicines and toastie makers and glow-in-the-dark cats, while humanities-driven curiosity just produces long lists of ‘–isms’.  This runs into criticism (B), that the humanities don’t really affect anyone.  I’d disagree.  The products of the humanities are less apparent, less immediate, and less traceable to a particular theory or discipline.  But they still affect our everyday lives.  Democracy, the welfare state, important pedagogical techniques – all emerged from the humanities.  It’s a commonplace argument that fiction, music, art, comedy, and the like all play a vital role in making lives worth living.  But the study of such things also plays a vital role in producing more of them, keeping people aware of traditions, and injecting fresh blood and fresh ideas into them.  Even the guilty-pleasurest of holiday novels draws on a long lineage of literary ideas, which are only brought to light and maintained by study.  The beneficial by-products of humanities are less immediate, and less tangible than those of science.  But the general pattern is the same – we ask questions about things because we’re curious to understand them, and sometimes products emerge that affect the world at large.

But before I get carried away and basically say that sciences and humanities are the same thing really, so let’s all just get along nicely now, let’s look at criticism (C) – that humanities are less rigorous than sciences.  Unlike the others, I do actually think this is a strong distinguishing feature between humanities and sciences.  I’m now mistily remembering my A-Levels, where I took sciences along with English; homework for the latter was always most frustrating, as I could never find the answer to ‘what does fire symbolise in Lord of the Flies’ at the back of any textbook.  To a rigorous mind, it does seem weird to have academic disciplines – which are driven by curiosity and question-asking, remember – where the questions don’t ever have right answers.  But this misses the point – in the humanities, questions fuel rather than satisfy curiosity.  When theories in the humanities disagree, the resultant debate produces more ideas and fuels creativity even if agreement is never reached.  Quantum theory maintains its scientific heritage because repeated investigations always produce the same answers.  Shakespeare maintains his cultural heritage because repeated investigations produce new ideas.  Okay, the rigorous mind says, but surely for the things that really matter in the modern world – feeding people, curing people, making cats glow in the dark – we need an efficient, replicable approach that produces direct answers.  Aha, o rigorous mind (reply I), you have clearly not read Dan Haybron’s The Pursuit of Unhappiness, which despite the gloomy title is actually a fascinating and entertaining read.  Haybron points out that the modern drive within the politics of developed nations to maximise on rational, quantifiable pursuits – money, property, efficient production and the like – can be strongly linked to rising levels of unhappiness worldwide.  And when developed nations try to foist these “liberal ideals” (Haybron’s key term) on other nations in the name of progress, without any awareness of cultural factors, history, or basic human nature, it can create a mental health timebomb.  Yes, we do need answers to pressing questions of human development.  But the process of questioning and answering cannot simply neglect the softer, more irrational side of humanity.  And cultural heritage is often a great insight into that.

Now, I need to leave you for rehearsal (did I mention about the play?  I can’t remember.  Just in case – Sorry.  But one brief important point before I go.  What I began as a comparison of sciences and humanities has become quite a one-sided defence of humanities.  That’s not my normal bias – if you haven’t already read my previous posts (shame on you), do so and you’ll see that I’m very much in the ‘science is awesome’ camp.  But I think it’s worth bearing in mind that accepting an important role for humanities in intellectual/everyday life need not demote science in any way.  There will always be bickering.  Humans do that well.  Academics basically replace the playground ‘I can think of a bigger number than you’ with ‘I can get more citations than you’.  This is largely because mathematicians invented different types of infinity so they’d always win the first game, the cheats.  Having a popular science programme titled ‘Art vs. Science’ isn’t in itself harmful.  But when one of the guests describes the opposition as ‘you artsy-fartsy types over there’, well, that’s not particularly helpful.  Scientists do have to deal with a lot of sniping and criticism.  But a lot of the criticisms of humanities made by scientific types I’ve outlined emerge through the medium of sneering.  The assumption that scientists ask better questions and have better methods turns neutral descriptions into criticisms.  For scientists to believe science is the best thing in the world ever is in the job description.  But to avoid preaching to the converted, the scientifically-minded in the public eye need to avoid unnecessary antagonism.  We need science to be liked, not just understood and respected.  Interdisciplinary banter is fine when there’s actual mutual appreciation underlying it.  We can fight in the playground all we like, but at the end of the day we have to be able to sit round the academic family dinner table together and have big grown-up conversations.  And on that note I’m off to spend a few hours pretending to be a small child.  You don’t get to do that much in science. 

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